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STEM_school comes in for sharp questioning : News : Oswego Ledger-Sentinel : Hometown Newspaper for Oswego and Montgomery, Illinois
STEM_school comes in for sharp questioning
School district board vote on partnership agreement still pending

by Lyle R. Rolfe


Plans for the Oswego School District to participate in the STEM Partnership School with three other area school districts came in for some sharp questioning by members of the school district board during a meeting Monday evening.
The board directed its questions at Dr. Sherry Eagle, former superintendent of the West Aurora School District and now executive director of Aurora University's Institute for Collaboration.
The STEM school is now under construction on the campus of Aurora University on the southwest side of Aurora. As proposed, the school would annually serve 200 third to eighth graders from the Oswego, West Aurora, Indian Prairie and East Aurora school district.
As planned, each district would send 50 students to the school per academic year.
The school is scheduled to open in August.
STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. As planned, the school is intended to "prepare the community's talented young learners" from the four school districts "in ways that will ignite their interest in mathematics and science," according to information on the school's website.
In addition, the website states, "Equally important is the opportunity to develop the school as a center for teacher preparation, faculty development and educational research."
Superintendent Dr. Matthew Wendt told board members he had attended a press conference concerning the school last week at Aurora University. (See story on page 8)
Wendt had asked Eagle to attend Monday's board meeting to answer their questions after having given his board members information about the school several weeks ago.
He said State Rep. Tom Cross, R-Oswego, and State Sen. Linda Holmes, D-Aurora, were instrumental in getting legislation passed that allows formation of the school.
Board President Bill Walsh said the board may vote on a partnership agreement with the university and the three other school districts at its next regular meeting on Monday, Jan. 27.
Eagle said Tuesday the total cost to the four school district that would participate in the STEM school for its first year of operation would be $1,499,383 or $374,845 per district.
The $374,845 each district would contribute to the STEM school would amount to $7,496 per student, based on 50 students coming from each district.
Eagle noted that the university, the John C. Dunham Foundation and several corporate donors including Caterpillar will also contribute significant funds to the STEM school.
During Monday's meeting, board member Matt Bauman asked Eagle where students will go after completing the school's eighth grade.
Eagle said they will return to their home high school and hopefully choose a career in math, science, engineering, or technology.
"We hope the home districts will choose students who have a high interest in these areas," Eagle said.
She said there also has been some discussion about extending the STEM studies into the local high schools and the lower grades (K-2) in the future.
Board member Greg O'Neil said 99 percent of what they are proposing is wonderful.
"But Oswego has 17,500 students and we're talking about taking only 50 of them for this school. It looks to me like this is a Charter School," he said, noting that the district had objected to an online charter school proposal last year.
O'Neil said the district presently is being short-changed on its per student allotments from the state each year and added that the amount of revenues it receives will continue to go down according to present estimates.
"It's hard to get excited about a new form of school when we can't fund the schools we have now. That's one of my concerns.
"I think the school boards are coming late to the party. I've yet to have a discussion with anyone about this other than some of my fellow board members individually," O'Neil said, noting that the project has yet to receive board approval for the district to participate.
Eagle said the faculty members of each of the four school district have been involved in the project since 2007.
She also explained how they raised funds from corporations who then bought into the project through their own foundations. She noted that 350 to 400 area teachers have been able to further their education at Aurora University at no cost to their districts or themselves.
Holmes said the legislation for the school prohibits the STEM School from being a charter school or a magnet school, adding that there is a moratorium in the state against online charter schools. She also said the STEM school will not be taking dollars from the regular schools.
Board member Brent Lightfoot said the proposed agreement notes that other schools can be added in the future and asked if they could be private schools.
Eagle said individual schools cannot be added according to the legislation because it allows only school districts. In the event any of the four districts (East and West Aurora, Indian Prairie and Oswego), would opt out the only other ones allowed would be Kaneland and Batavia, she said.
Board member Brent Lightfoot said the agreement notes that the school's governing board will approve the budget and he asked why the local district would not have a say in this.
Eagle said the governing board will consist of the four school superintendents and the AU president. She said each of them could get approval from their individual boards on the overall budget before voting on it. And they could make a proposal to change things in the agreement if the wanted, she said, adding the school attorney's were involved in preparing the agreement.
Lightfoot also asked about the agreement, noting they want teachers with tenure. Eagle confirmed they prefer to have teachers in the school who are tenured in their home districts. But, if not enough applicants are tenured, they can accept teachers who are still on probation, Maureen Lemon, Oswego School Disrict Board attorney said.
Lightfoot also said he did not see a set of standards for choosing students to attend the school.
Eagle said each district will choose its own students based on a criteria that will be applied equally to all four districts. If more than seven students apply for any grade level (per school), that school will hold a lottery to chose them, she added.
Eagle said Dr. Judy Minor, the Oswego School District's assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, was involved in creating the regulations along with assistant superintendents from the other three districts.
Board member Ali Swanson noted that each district must provide transportation for its students to and from the school.
"But East Aurora does not have buses, so what happens?" she asked.
"That's not part of the overall budget, but is part of each district's own responsibility," Bill Walsh, board president said.
The amount of state reimbursement for transporting students, will be up to the state, Dr. Paul O'Malley, Oswego associate superintendent said.
O'Neil asked if a deadline for approval of the agreement had been set.
Wendt said each school board is expected to have three readings or discussions on the partnership agreement in hopes of being ready for vote by February. However, no actual date has been set, he said.
"'But we don't want to go into March," he said. He also noted that the goal is to have the school open for students in August of this year.
The building is under construction on the AU campus at the northeast corner of Prairie Street and Calumet Avenue in Aurora.

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